Oregon State University administration held a remote open forum on June 2 to field student questions on the reopening of campus in the fall and to explain anticipated policy changes regarding COVID-19.
The open forum, moderated by Steve Clark, vice president of University Relations and Marketing at Oregon State, featured panelists including Peter Banwarth, an epidemiologist and public health data scientist with the Benton County Health Department, Charlie Fautin, an infectious disease expert, Dan Larson, vice provost of Student Affairs, and other members of the Corvallis, Ore. community.
Student questions were primarily focused on how OSU would maintain public health as they moved forward with the reopening, and what classes and employment would look like in the fall term.
Participants could submit questions using the Zoom question and answer feature, which were then selected and posed to the panelists by Clark.
“We recognize there is risk in reopening,” Larson said, adding that he feels the university’s proposed health protocols will minimize the spread of infection on campus.
According to Larson, the administration aims to make community engagement a major part of their planning process, but clarified that all current plans are prone to change as the number of recorded COVID-19 cases in Corvallis changes.
Banwarth said the proposed health measures suggested by OSU as on-campus classes resume, including mandatory face-coverings, social distancing and isolation of symptomatic individuals, are expected to “have a great impact on our success” in controlling the spread of the virus, according to models that he has created.
Face coverings will be mandatory and will be provided to students. 20,000 cloth face coverings have been ordered, as well as disposable masks and face-shields.
Students who refuse to wear some form of face covering while in confined spaces with others may be withheld from entering classrooms or face termination of employment.
According to Larson, the current resumption plan has “more principal than there is detail,” and will be “modified as we go and as we see what the virus does in our community.”
Larson said health and safety were the university’s first priorities, and that all protocols by the state government will be followed. According to Larson, after Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s order banning all in-person classes expires on June 13, low-density classes are expected to resume on campus.
Alix Gitelman, vice provost for Undergraduate Education, said the administration hopes to have “as many courses as possible back on campus,” and clarified that all classrooms will be equipped to allow social distancing of at least six feet between students, as well as technology to record lectures for students unable to attend in person.
Larson acknowledged that some remote classes will still be used to lower classroom density.
Gitelman outlined a plan for the fall term of classwork, research, internships and student services being delivered with mixed modality, meaning partially remote and partially delivered face-to-face in a larger classroom capacity.
Other proposed policy changes include letting classes out 45 minutes after the hour—instead of the usual 50—to allow more time for socially-distanced exiting, designated entrance and exit doors in classrooms to minimize student contact while using doorways, and lower-density residence hall and dining center operations.
Requirements for on-campus housing currently include 64 square feet of personal space per person, per room, fewer triples and reduced access to common space.
According to Larson, every two weeks, members of the OSU community will be randomly selected for COVID-19 testing, and wastewater from on-campus housing will be tested to monitor the levels of COVID-19 in the student population, and to guide future plans.
Larson also specified that designated on-campus housing will be provided for on-campus students who have tested positive for COVID-19, to allow them to isolate or quarantine as they continue taking classes.
Alix Gitelman reiterated that any class session, including recitations or labs for larger classes, will be held in person if there are fewer than 50 people per section.
Larson acknowledged that for many workers and researchers, particularly graduate employees on campus, “there may be no way to deliver some things remotely,” and said the university plans to use “great flexibility” in degree and program requirements moving forward.
Larson also said OSU plans to resume childcare in a limited capacity as face-to-face operations resume.
Co-curricular and extracurricular activities will be allowed, under the condition that participants abide by health standards set by the school.
Rachel Josephson, outgoing president of the Associated Students of OSU, OSU’s student government, and recently inaugurated President Isabel Nuñez Pérez, both called on students to practice social distancing to keep each other safe.
“Students are family members, we’re caretakers, we’re workers, we’re perhaps immunocompromised, we’re a lot of different things that make it so being active in practicing public health is really important,” Josephson said.
In response to a student question on the risk of students bringing COVID-19 to Corvallis after the reopening, Banwarth said, “This is something I’ve been wrestling with a lot.”
According to Banwarth, his models suggested that reopening with the proposed public health measures would be more effective in containing the virus than a blanket stay-at-home order for students.
“I believe the positives of having the students, the faculty and the staff outweigh the higher risk, I believe that we have tools, that if we all worked together we can be more effective than if we just hunkered down. We know that the coronavirus is in our community now, it’s not just a matter of infected students coming from another country and bringing it in, we have people living in our community now who have it,” Banwarth said. “More than any individual infection being brought in, it’s going to be the increased interactions that could lead to more infections, and those are the sort of things we can work to control with public health interventions.”
Rebecca Mathern, university registrar and associate provost, said students should expect to know if their classes will be delivered remotely or face-to-face by July 1.
Gitelman, in response to a student question on the possibility of a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections, said, “If local health authorities deem it necessary to go fully remote, we will do that. We have no way of knowing what winter will look like.”
A video of the meeting can be accessed at theOSU COVID-19 resumption website.